‘Salvaging’ the old homestead

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I have always had an interest in the history of the North Fork, especially the homestead era. The early homesteaders had to be tough and resilient to eke out a living, even with 160 acres of “free land.”

Many of the homesteaders did not succeed, and for a variety of reasons. A few just found the life just too plain lonely while others had family troubles and some were just lazy and found the life too hard.

Homesteads that were filed and then abandoned were taken by Flathead County for unpaid taxes or returned to the U.S. Government if the homesteader had not “proven up” on his claim. This was the most common type of abandonment.

Failed homesteaders provided opportunities for those who remained. If they had title to the land, they could sell their land to neighbors – usually for just pennies per acre. But, many who did not have title left behind valuable building materials, if not personal possessions.

Matt Brill was an example and, no doubt, not the only homesteader who worked at what Matt called “salvage.” He is just the only one I knew personally. When Matt was sure that buildings were abandoned, he would take his team of horses and tools and go to work.

First to be salvaged were any windows that were intact, followed by window frames with no glass, lumber or boards of any type or size (tongue and groove flooring was especially prized), and any metal of any size and shape, as it could all be used at Matt’s forge. Common metal left behind were worn our horseshoes, which Matt could equip with calks for winter use, when he put up several tons of ice.

Some of Brill’s neighbors thought he was a bit too aggressive in his salvage operations, but there were never any confrontations or legal issues. Turns out, Matt always waited two years and checked that taxes were unpaid before starting any salvage.

How did this work out for him?

Matt and his wife Mata (her real name) created the Kintla Guest Ranch with 800 deeded acres and three-and-a-half miles of riverfront. They built 14 guest cabins, a log lodge, all equipped with lodgepole furniture that Matt made and upholstered with goat hides and furs that he tanned himself. Both he and Mata were terrific cooks, raised their own meat and veggies and organized guests in huckleberry and strawberry picking forays to provide jams for the next season. A huge root cellar contained quarts and quarts of canned produce and meat. Mint also grew just outside the kitchen door for Matt’s famous mint juleps.

To top it off, both Matt and Mata were terrific personalities and were always enjoyed by their guests. I’m really glad I knew them and even happier that I wrote up Matt’s campfire stories when I was in high school. One little disclaimer: Matt always mentioned the story was the most important part, not whether every detail is true or not.

Larry Wilson’s North Fork Views appear weekly in the Hungry Horse News.

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